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Adventures in Hyperpolyglottery: Inside the Mind of Extreme Language Learners

Posted: 12/29/11 11:22 AM ET

Admit it. At one point or another, the words "Learn a new language," have appeared on your list of New Year's Resolutions. Like most resolutions made with the best of intentions, this one frequently fizzles out well before the year comes to an end. But speaking multiple languages is not uncommon -- it's the normal state for many human beings all over the world. So why is it so hard for people to achieve such a simple goal?

As it turns out, learning languages is easier -- and more pleasurable -- for some folks than for others. In fact, there is a group of individuals who find the process so enjoyable that they take it to another level entirely. They're known as hyperpolyglots. Take Emil Krebs, who reportedly spoke 68 languages. Or Elihu Burritt, who could read 50 languages. And then there's Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti, who learned to speak 39 languages.

Who are these people, and why on earth do they learn so many languages? A new book by Michael Erard sheds light on extreme language learners and how they operate. Erard has been researching hyperpolyglottery since 2005, when he wrote an article on the subject for the New Scientist. His book profiles many hyperpolyglots, both those that are no longer alive to tell their stories, as in the examples above, and those that walk (and speak) among us today. As a self-confessed language addict, I couldn't resist asking him some questions about his research on hyperpolyglots. Thankfully, he indulged me.


Nataly Kelly (NK): Why did you write this book?

Michael Erard (ME): The changing linguistic world needs polyglots! We need to know what makes them tick so we can find out how to reproduce or mimic what they are able to do. We also need to get a grasp on our own fascinations (and suspicions) of massive multilingualism. This was a topic that had never been covered from a scientific perspective. In hyperpolyglots you have people who are running in essence a natural experiment into the limits of language learning, but no one, until now, has examined the results of that experiment.

NK: What exactly is a hyperpolyglot?
ME: I started my investigations with the definition that a hyperpolyglot is someone who speaks six or more languages, based on work by Dick Hudson, a University College London linguist, but that ought to be revised upward, to 11 languages or more.

NK: How fluent does one have to be in each language to be considered a hyperpolyglot?
ME: There's a myth that hyperpolyglots have all of their languages to an equally high, native-like level, but this isn't the case, just as it's relatively rare to find bilinguals who are perfectly balanced in both of their languages. Hyperpolyglots have varying degrees of proficiency in their languages, depending on lots of factors. To be clear, the goal of my project wasn't to police the boundaries of hyperpolyglottery, and it was interesting to come across all the standards and criteria, both institutional and informal, that people have for measuring language proficiency. It can be useful to think about word-level abilities, sentence-level abilities, and discourse (or paragraph)-level abilities. When I think of hyperpolyglots, I'm thinking of people who have some amount of sentence-level abilities in several domains. Someone who can merely order a drink in a restaurant doesn't count.

NK: Are hyperpolyglots physiologically different from other people?
ME: Any physiological difference is going to exist in the brain. Certainly their brains bear the uses to which they put it, just as expert musicians brains show development in areas related to processing sound and motor control. The question is, do hyperpolyglot brains have some functional or structural difference that precedes intensive language learning? There could be at least three: first, they might have a more plastic neurology than normal people have in the regions of the brain that serve memory functions; second, they might have more efficient connections between language-specific regions of the brain, which would allow them to build semantic systems and sound systems and to be able to reproduce or mimic foreign speech sounds; third, they might have stronger higher-order cognitive functions, such as executive function and working memory, which would be reflected in the prefrontal cortex.

NK: What's the difference between a multilingual and a hyperpolyglot?
ME: One way to think about the distinction is that a multilingual is someone who has a repertoire of active languages; that person lives in all of those languages on a daily basis or has them to a very high degree of proficiency, so they are immediately available to that person to use. The hyperpolyglot also keeps a set of languages "on ice" -- ones that are not kept active or immediately available but which need to be "warmed up" for use. This theme was repeated over and over by people I met and read about. It is what makes measuring the size of a person's linguistic repertoire challenging. And it's one thing that makes hyperpolyglots nervous about public interactions. What if they get asked a question in a language that they like to say that they know but which they haven't re-activated?

Also, a hyperpolyglot doesn't have much of a role to play in the future of any given language, whereas a multilingual does. Additionally, for the multilingual, learning another language is a way to participate in their community, but for a hyperpolyglot, it always brings them away from their community -- their local community, anyway. It certainly ties them to an imagined global community.

NK: What traits do hyperpolyglots have in common?
ME: My online survey found that they're more frequently men (and there are many possible reasons for this). They possess a set of active languages and a set of surge languages which have to be activated. They do not necessarily come from bilingual family upbringings. They come from all over and have all sorts of languages as mother tongues. They have high IQs but do not have to have genius-level IQs.

In my sample, they were not more predominantly non-right handed (though measuring handedness is tricky) nor were they more likely to be twins or have twins in their family, but they were more likely to report homosexual orientations, behaviors, and/or tendencies, and they were more likely to have immune disorders, themselves or in their families.

I know this is going to seem as if I just said that gay people have more language talent. That's not what I found. It's that among the people I asked, they were more likely than the statistical model would predict to report homosexuality. This may say something very important about homosexuality and language aptitude; it may say more about the population of people who answer surveys online. We don't know yet. The world's largest repository of language aptitude data correlated with gender, handedness, health and -- now, thanks to the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell -- sexual preference is the Defense Language Institute, but they don't release this. Anecdotally, some people were spatially limited -- they didn't drive, and they became lost very easily.

NK: Many people think they are too old to learn a new language. Did you notice any trends regarding the ages of the hyperpolyglots you studied?
ME: The largest group of people who said they knew six or more languages were 25 to 40 years old (44 percent); the 40 to 60 set comprised 27 percent. The 18 to 25 set were only 19 percent. Among those who had more than 11 languages, those in 25 to 40 range and 40 to 60 range were both 35 percent. I would say that another trait of hyperpolyglots is that while they may slow down their pace of language learning as they age, they do not stop. This is where the advantages of lots of early intensive learning pay off. By the time they are in their 50s, they know how they learn, they know how intensively they have to work, and they understand a lot about language structures. The problem is that memory systems are less plastic.

NK: Is every healthy human born with the possibility of becoming a hyperpolyglot?
ME: No. Hyperpolyglots are not born, and they are not made, but they are born to be made. There is a finite subset of the human population which has the right neurological equipment for learning and using lots of languages. That equipment may serve only a sub-component of language learning, such as mimicry, pattern recognition, or memory, or it serves those sub-components in a global fashion. Those who become hyperpolyglots are those who meet two criteria. One, they are exposed to language material. Two, they undertake learning languages as a mission as well as acquiring the personal identity as a language learner. In the book I describe the "neural tribe theory" of hyperpolyglots, arguing that they possess an atypical neurology that is selected by some environments and not others; presumably, there have always been humans walking around with that set of neurological traits or factors, only some of whom actually use those things for languages.

NK: How many hyperpolyglots are there in the world?
ME: I don't know! But there are going to be more of them, as the globalized environment where speaking a lot of languages is rewarded and getting access to learning materials is easier. A talent for massive language learning has not been supported by the environment until very recently, so this is a phenomenon that is going to become more common and more visible.

NK: Of the living hyperpolyglots you met with when doing your research, which ones did you find most interesting?
ME: You know, I really liked all of them, but I was impressed by Graham Cansdale, a European Commission translator. I'm his Facebook friend, and he's always posting status updates from all over the world where he's working on this language or that. Learning languages isn't hard for him and isn't even something he spends a lot of time doing -- he'd rather be cooking or gardening. I also admired Alexander Arguelles' devotion to his pursuits.

NK: What do hyperpolyglots intend to do with all these languages?
ME: It varies. Sometimes it's about travel, sometimes it's about work, sometimes it's about consuming media, sometimes it's about an eagerness to interact with people. Interestingly, their goals were very functional in nature. They wanted to be able to do things successfully and feel comfortable doing them. They were not obsessed with becoming natives, sounding native-like, or blending in. They are professional linguistic outsiders.

This from the outset makes them very different from what I think most foreign language education -- wrongly -- attempts to achieve, which is native-likeness. If you start from the premise that bilinguals don't know the same as two monolinguals, then trying to achieve a monolingual's level of knowledge and performance in your new language is going to frustrate you.

NK: Did writing the book inspire you to learn more languages?
ME: Doing research and traveling spurred me to study Italian and Hindi, and when I was in Bangalore I sat in on two Kannada classes and wished I could have stayed in south India longer. Looking at the archives of Cardinal Mezzofanti in Bologna, I found myself reading a lot of French, Italian, and Spanish. After finishing the book, I've been given a greater appreciation for doing things to maintain the plasticity of my brain, and I'm very interested in taking up a musical instrument. And like a lot of American parents, I'm compelled to make educational decisions for my son that will give him early access to foreign languages.

NK: What is the most important lesson for the world take away from your research on hyperpolyglots?
ME: Developing and deploying cognitive capital should be a major policy endeavor by businesses and governments. Also, the research on hyperpolyglots suggests that there's a range of atypical neurologies of which we should be more aware.

If you'd like to learn more about Erard's research, visit his book's website, www.babelnomore.com.

 
 
 

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